David Rose

So how did a Hamas apologist get an invitation to Parliament?

Ismail Patel, who has ‘saluted’ Hamas for ‘standing up to Israel’, rubbed shoulders with MPs at an event in January


Ismail Patel speaks at March For Palestine (Photo: Alamy)

March 22, 2024 17:16

Last Tuesday morning, it became clear that Imam Asim Hafiz, the chief Muslim chaplain to Britain’s armed forces, has some prominent friends. The previous day, I’d contacted the ministry, asking about a reception held in Parliament by an educational charity he heads, the Avicenna Foundation. Besides MPs, peers and members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, some of those who attended had expressed inflammatory views.

Among them was Ismail Patel, the leader of Friends of Al-Aqsa. Patel has visited Hamas leaders in Gaza, denied it is a terror group and “saluted” it for “standing up to Israel”. In 2021, he praised the killer of the Jerusalem tour guide Eli Kay, describing him as a “martyr”.

Another guest was Zara Mohammed, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, which has been officially boycotted by successive governments since 2009, when its then-deputy leader signed a declaration saying the “Islamic nation” should wage “jihad and resistance” against Israel. In November, the Telegraph reported that the MCB was helping MoD officials recruit and “endorse” more Muslim chaplains to work under Hafiz. Almost immediately, ministers ordered them to cease and desist.

Responding to my email, an MoD official tried to persuade me not to publish a story. Hafiz, she said, was only one of 200 people present, so why single him out? I pointed out that he was president of the the charity, and had made a speech at the event in which he’d “welcomed” all the guests. The official said that made no difference. Hafiz had long spoken out against extremism, not only in Britain but when deployed in Afghanistan, for which he had been awarded an OBE.

That was the start of on onslaught. Next up was Laura Marks, the founder of the Mitzvah Day charity and the chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, as well as Nisha—Nasim, which tries to connect Jewish and Muslim communities. She too had only good to say about Hafiz, describing his “commitment to fighting extremism and antisemitism and encouraging moderation” as “truly exceptional and brave”.

Other friends of Hafiz lobbied the JC’s editor. Finally came a letter from the law firm Carter Ruck. It accepted that back in 2020, Hafiz had been part of a WhatsApp group that also included Patel and leaders of the MCB. However, it went on, “our client’s work and approach in this regard – in breaking down barriers and challenging extremism – inevitably leads him to engage with individuals who hold a range of views, including sometimes very different to his own.” Hafiz, it said, “neither holds nor condones any views that could legitimately be considered ‘extremist’.”

As for the reception, Hafiz “was not responsible for selecting attendees for the event”. The MoD issued a statement to the same effect.

This begs some questions. If Hafiz didn’t draw up the guest list, then who did? After all, you can’t just rock up to an event in Parliament: to get through security, you need an invitation.

There are broader issues, too. I accept that almost everyone at the reception, Hafiz included, abhors extremism. But should we be concerned if impeccably moderate people associate with those who aren’t? Is there a degree of extremism which ought to put a person or an organisation beyond the respectable pale?

It’s hard to devise a rulebook here, but two recent examples suggest we need one. Take the case of Azhar Ali, Labour’s candidate at the Rochdale by-election. When the JC reported he was the trustee of a mosque that had hosted extremist preachers, the story made little impact. His party continued to defend him even after it emerged that he had claimed Israel allowed Hamas to perpetrate the October 7 massacre to create a pretext for invading Gaza. It was only when his further comments about “people in the media from certain Jewish quarters” were published that he was finally dropped.

The MCB provides another. As you might expect, its website currently contains a lot of material expressing concern and support for Palestinians and calls for an immediate ceasefire. But it also urges readers to “stand in sympathy and solidarity with Jewish communities subjected to hate” and warns them not to endorse terrorism. It is apparent that it wants to be seen as respectable, and for the official boycott to end.

Yet on 6 March, the MCB held its own event in Parliament, when its Centre for Media Monitoring launched a report on coverage of the war. Among the speakers were Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian doctor and activist, who in a recent TV interview said the October 7 atrocities were “wonderful”, and that it was “admirable that the Hamas fighters exploded this whole rotten structure”. In December, she told a meeting in London: “What you saw on Oct 7th was breaking out from the cage of Gaza by a resistance movement."

In my opinion, people such as Ismail Patel and Karmi do not belong in Parliament, and supposedly moderate organisations that want to participate in mainstream discourse should not lend them credibility by associating with them. They may not, to borrow the language of Hafiz’s lawyer, “condone” extremism themselves. But that’s not enough. It has to be exposed, shunned, and condemned.

March 22, 2024 17:16

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